When the debate surrounding analytics in football rages, the glare from the number-crunching spotlight inevitably comes to rest on Brentford, the club viewed as the English game’s principal pioneers of mathematical modelling.
Much head-scratching ensued when the club announced in February 2015 that then-manager Mark Warburton would leave Griffin Park at the end of the campaign. The former City trader proceeded to lead the Bees to their highest league finish in more than half a century.
But the die was cast. With or without Warburton, the west London outfit were careening towards the adoption of the statistical approach which was in place at FC Midtjylland, who were crowned Danish champions in May 2015 and whose majority shareholder is Brentford owner Matthew Benham.
Key to their passage into a brave new world was co-director of football Rasmus Ankersen, also chairman of Midtjylland, disciple of Benham and exponent of innovation. But even to him, regime by numbers jibes rankle.
“Sometimes when you hear about Brentford, you feel it’s just data and not humans that run this club and there are robots walking around the training ground,” he told City A.M.
“We really believe analytics can make a difference and have a role to play in football and will have a bigger role to play in the future. But no matter how many times we say we also do all the traditional stuff, people don’t listen because the narrative is set.”
“Football had been screaming for the old Moneyball story for years and now Brentford and Midtjylland came about and we became that Moneyball story,” he said, citing the Michael Lewis book on Billy Beane’s mathematical model-based success with baseball’s Oakland A’s.
“We don’t disrespect or disregard traditional scouting or coaching at all but we think there is something else to be said about it and that’s what we’ve tried to introduce.”
Ankersen, still just 32, was Midtjylland youth team captain before a knee injury ended his career. He is now a qualified coach, an entrepreneur and author, and despite his regard for the past is intent on challenging convention. That is what happened when former hedge fund manager and professional gambler Benham invested £6.2m in Midtjylland in 2014 and joined forces with Ankersen.
Use of statistical analysis for training, scouting and work in the transfer market is trumpeted as a principal factor in propelling Midtjylland from the cusp of bankruptcy to domestic champions for the first time in their history within a solitary season.
“Brentford and Midtjylland are small clubs with small budgets and that means you’ve got to think differently,” added Ankersen. “If you just do the same as the other team then money becomes the decisive factor and we will lose, so we have got to take a different approach.
“That’s what we’ve tried to do, for example, with having an analytics-driven recruitment. We know that it’s not going to work out all the time but we’ve got to look at it from a different angle to see if we can find players that other clubs will overlook.
“Matthew is a lot about taking risks and Brentford and Midtjylland are clubs that need to take some kind of risk. David can’t beat Goliath by using the same weapons; he has to use a different weapon. Analytics is a different weapon. We had to go down that route to find an edge.”
Ankersen tells the story of meeting Benham for the first time, asking him about Brentford’s chances of promotion from League One and being told: “We have a 42 per cent chance.”
“I knew he was thinking differently about football compared to anyone I ever met before,” said Ankersen.
“He was a big inspiration to me about looking more rationally, looking more at inefficiencies in the game, taking that trader background that he has and applying it to football.
“A lot of innovation in a field comes from the outside, from people who come with a different perspective. I always try and look outside the industry for new concepts, for new ideas that can be applied to football.”
Scepticism towards analytics in England is deep-rooted and Ankersen admits it was a far smoother transition in Denmark when a philosophical and practical change in outlook was introduced. He also considers English football to be a different animal.
“The way Scandinavians think about the game is in a very collective way, like organisation, co-ordinating movements,” he added. “I don’t know whether it has something to do with it being a welfare society, whereas in England there is a lot more of an individualistic culture. It’s more about the individual quality of the players rather than organisation of the team.”
But while Ankersen openly accepts that less than a year into the Brentford project there have been mistakes – the club are on their second manager and sit just six points above the Championship relegation zone – he believes it would be foolish to bet against long-term gain.
“Matthew’s ambition is to take the club to the Premier League,” added Ankersen. “We’re still working on building the foundations and the structure of the club to take it forward. It can take a while.
“It’s really important to stick to what you believe in. You meet a lot of resistance and obstacles along the way, but you’ve got to live and die with your philosophy.
“It’s too early to say whether this is going to be a success but we’ve taken some big steps. It is a long-term project and not something we expect will reward us right away.”